Banbury’s U15s edge County Championship thriller
By Paul Weaver
U15s are Oxfordshire County Cup Champions - Match report by Sim Crowther
It’s not often that the phrase ‘it could have gone either way’ truly applies to any sporting contest but in this case it absolutely does! These two sides, so closely matched and perhaps the most consistent county performers over recent seasons, served up a fantastic cup final that showcased all that’s great about the game of rugby.
Banbury started strongly, as they have all season, pinning the visitors in their own half for long periods of time and applying pressure to the Witney try line. The breakdown battles were frantic, the carries hard. Banbury crossed the line through James Thornley early on but the ball was held up.
A scrum in midfield and close to halfway, gave Banbury a great first phase attacking opportunity. Ben Crowther at 10, found a gap created by the threat of inside centre Jacob Hancock and the Banbury backs burst through the gainline only to be stopped just short of the line once more. A lack of composure on Banbury’s part, some nervous errors and quite superb, scrambling defence from Witney kept the score at 0-0 before a series of infringements by Banbury finally saw the momentum swing Witney’s way and, with 20 minutes gone, the ball entered the Banbury half for the first time. Witney’s powerful forwards gained some ascendency and their talented centres started to make half breaks to panic the Banbury defenders.
However, it wasn’t long before Banbury were applying further pressure and Sam Pickwick, coming on at fly half, provided new impetus and posed some new challenges with two clever kicks in quick succession to make Witney’s formidable defence turn and chase. The half ended, as it had begun, deep in Witney territory.
The second half began at the same frenetic pace with the battle for possession utterly ferocious Tom Evans and Harvey Goodman going toe-to-toe with the abrasive Witney forwards at every breakdown. Witney started much the stronger this time and it wasn’t long before, against the run of first-half play, the visitors went ahead. Strong, surging carries, had the Banbury forwards back-peddling and Witney crossed under the posts, only to be held up. Two attacking scrums later and the deadlock was broken as the Witney right winger touched down in the shadow of the clubhouse to a roar from the travelling support. With the tricky conversion missed, the match restarted with Witney tails up and Banbury making panicky handling errors. Suddenly, every Witney ball carrier seemed to be making ground and the Banbury line was again threatened before an attacking error enabled the home side to clear their lines to halfway with a flowing handling move combining backs and forwards.
With both sides starting to tire, multiple errors and mis-cued clearance kicks saw play occupy the centre of the field for a period. However, the timely introduction of fresh legs in the form of Oscar Stewart-Tanner and Fin Spaargaren helped to swing the game back towards Banbury and Witney found themselves pinned back in their own half once more by a few trade-mark kick-returns from Will Lewis-Jones. Stirling work by Will Robertson, ripping the ball out of a maul and charging deep into Witney’s 22, lead to a penalty for Banbury and Sam Pickwick put the ball out of play to within 5 yards of the Witney line. What followed, was a Banbury try that was all about resilience, determination and skill.
Quick ball off the top of the lineout from Boy Wilson-Fitzgerald enabled a charge for the whitewash by Luke Nunn. His carrying threat sucked in defenders. A pick and go from Bernardo Fernandez and an aggressive clearout from Jacob Hancock provided quick ball for Hamish Nelson to exploit the width of the pitch. Quick hands from Ralph Roberts and Will Lewis-Jones gave Callum Davies a chance but he was stopped just short by the scrambling Witney defence. Still on his feet, Will latched on to the pop pass from Callum and was downed within a metre. However, another great clearout by number 8, Dan Nutt and Callum Davies (who was back up in a flash) gave more quick ball for scrum half Hamish. Banbury were not to be denied in the far corner. A sublime reverse pass from second row, Oscar Stewart-Tanner and lightning fast hands from Ralph Roberts put Dan Kerr into the corner and the Banbury crowd went wild.
Boy Wilson-Fitzgerald stepped up to take the conversion which was narrowly missed from wide out on the right. Scores level with just a few minutes left to play and few, if any, fingernails left inside the DCS stadium.
From the restart, Witney came back hard and the final moments of the match were all about Banbury surviving a determined onslaught from the visitors. A clever kick from the Witney fly half almost enabled the visiting right winger to score right at the death but a knock on and no downward pressure on the ball ruled out any chance of a try.
An hour’s incredible play just could not separate these two sides so the match was forced into extra time and a ‘golden score’. After a poor restart, Witney battled to the Banbury 22 in the face of some desperate defending. A snapped attempt at a drop goal fell short and wide and Banbury were able to clear their lines. Minutes later, a turnover in the home side’s favour saw play move into Witney’s half and the ball rolled into touch, 30m from the visitors’ posts. Off the top of the ensuing lineout, with both sides visibly exhausted, Witney elected to run the ball out of their 22. Banbury’s defence matched up man-for-man and raced up as hard as leaden legs would allow. Ralph Roberts, who was heroic in defence all game put huge pressure on the penultimate Witney attacker who was downed as he threw his pass. Dan Kerr, reading the situation beautifully stole in for an interception and raced in under the posts to score the winning points after 70 minutes of incredible drama. Tears were shed, the air was punched and grown men in red jackets jumped up and down and leapt into the arms of 15-year-old players!
What. A. Game! This was just the most incredible, tense, frantic, rollercoaster of a match that kept every single member of the sizable, noisy crowd on the edge of their seats. Despite the tension, the game was played in wonderful spirit throughout. What a credit to their coaches and to the game of rugby, the two sets of players were and what a privilege it was to have been part of the occasion.
Many many congratulations to Witney and to Banbury U15s, Oxfordshire County Champions 2019.